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Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King at the funeral of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968. - picture from

Civil Rights/Human Rights Activist, Women's Rights Activist, National/International Diplomat, Educator

As the wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King was ready to continue his work and perpetuate his ideals after his 1968 assassination. While her primary role in the early years of marriage was to raise her four children, she became increasingly involved in the struggle for civil rights through her husband's activities. After his death, she quickly became a dynamic activist and peace crusader.

Born one of three children on April 27, 1927, King is a native of Heilberger, Alabama. During the Depression she was forced to contribute to the family income by hoeing and picking cotton, but she resolved early to overcome adversity, seek treatment as an equal, and struggle to achieve a sound education. After graduating from the private Lincoln High School in 1945, she entered Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, on a scholarship, majoring in education and music. A teaching career appealed to her, but she became badly disillusioned when she was not allowed to do her practice teaching in the public schools of the town. No black had ever taught there, and she was not destined to be the first to break the tradition.

Musical training in voice and piano absorbed much of her time, with the result that, upon graduation, she decided to continue her studies at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, attending on a modest fellowship which covered tuition but made part-time work a necessity. Her meeting with Martin Luther King thrust her into a whirlwind romance, and also presented her with the opportunity to marry an exceptional young minister whose intense convictions and concern for humanity brought her a measure of rare self-realization early in life. Sensing his incredible dynamism, she suffered no regrets at the prospect of relinquishing her own possible career.

Completing her studies in 1954, King moved back south with her husband, who became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Within a year, King had led the Montgomery bus boycott and had given birth to a new era of civil rights agitation. Two years later, he was the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Over the years King gradually became more involved in her husband's work. She would occasionally perform at his lectures, raising her voice in song as he did in speech. She became involved in separate activities as well. In 1962, she served as a Woman's Strike for Peace delegate to the 17-nation Disarmament Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. In the mid 1960s, she sang in the multi-arts Freedom Concerts that raised money for the SCLC. As demands on Martin became too much, she began to fill the speaking engagements he could not. After his assassination, she filled many of the commitments his death left empty, but soon became sought-after in her own right.

King's speech on Solidarity Day, June 19, 1968, is often identified as a prime example of her emergence from the shadow of her husband's memory. In it, she called upon American women to "unite and form a solid block of women power" to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty, and war. Much of her subsequent activity revolved around building plans for the creation of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Atlanta, which she began to work on in 1969, and which was established under the care of the National Park Service in 1980. She also published My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., a book of reminiscences.

King's activism has extended beyond U.S. borders. For example, in the mid-1980s, she and two of her children were arrested for demonstrating against apartheid outside of the South African embassy in Washington, DC. The following year, in 1986, she visited South Africa for eight days, meeting with businessmen and anti-apartheid leaders. King has also decried the human rights violations of the Haitian military regime against Haitian citizens. In 1993, she implored the United Nations to reimpose an embargo against the nation.

Meanwhile, the well-respected Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change became involved in an ugly scuffle with the National Park Service over the issue of how best to utilize some of the historic Atlanta district in which the King memorial are located. As CEO, King was forced to mediate between the family's desire for an interactive museum with exhibitions and programs for youngsters and the National Park Service's plan for a visitor's center on the same site. The dispute was not resolved until April of 1995, a few months after King had officially stepped down, handing the reigns over to her son Dexter, who was unanimously voted the center's director and CEO.

Controversy continued brewing. In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. had given nearly 83,000 documents, including correspondence and other manuscripts to Boston University. Mrs. King had hoped to regain control of that legacy, but in April of 1995, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of the university, leaving King, and many other Atlantans displeased.

On a brighter note, King remains an eloquent and respected spokesperson on behalf of black causes and nonviolent philosophy. She is often recognized for keeping her husband's dream alive. In September of 1995, King, along with two other famous civil rights widows Myrlie Evers-Williams and Betty Shabazz were honored for their influence by the National Political Congress of Black Women.

Source: The African American Almanac, 7th ed., Gale, 1997.

Text from: - Black History Month - Biographies

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